The U.S. Army and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed a demonstration where Army pilots exercised supervised autonomy to direct an optionally-piloted helicopter (OPV) through a series of missions to demonstrate technology developed by DARPA and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company.
During the demo, an S-76B commercial helicopter flew over a small crowd, landed in an adjacent field after adjusting to miss a vehicle, and rose up to hover motionless for several minutes. The pilot carried out the maneuvers using supervised autonomy in an aircraft equipped with DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). He operated the system via novel control interceptors and a tablet he had used for the first time just three days beforehand.
“Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot’s attention, but automated flight control achieves ‘rock steady’ precision,” says Graham Drozeski, the DARPA program manager for ALIAS, explaining how offloading pilots’ cognitive burden frees them to focus on mission execution. Really, we want the pilot’s eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude. That’s the core focus of ALIAS: bringing the latest advances from unmanned aircraft into a piloted aircraft through an interface that provides fluid interaction with the autonomous capabilities.”
The U.S. Army pilot conducting the demonstration agreed, noting that as autonomous systems become more prevalent, aircraft systems can take on the role of a traditional co-pilot.
“The Army refers to this as Mission Adaptive Autonomy. It’s there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role. But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-route or re-plan on the fly,” says Lt. Col. Carl Ott, chief of Flight Test for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Aviation Development Directorate.
During the hour-long flight demonstration, Ott interfaced with the autonomous capabilities of the system to conduct a series of realistic missions, including aircrew tasks such as low-level terrain flight, confined area takeoffs and landings, landing zone selection, trajectory planning, and wire-obstacle avoidance.
Before climbing in the cockpit, Ott practiced the mission plan with the ALIAS simulator, a tool that could help reduce mission planning and preparation time for future operators, allowing them to rehearse maneuvers in advance.
Moving forward to Phase 3, the Sikorsky engineers developing ALIAS have begun to integrate the system into a UH-60 Black Hawk for testing and flight demonstration in 2019. Over the next few months, Sikorsky will for the first time fly a Black Hawk equipped with ALIAS, officials report. The company is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify ALIAS/MATRIX technology so that it will be available on current and future commercial and military aircraft.
The recent Mission Software Flight Demonstration was a collaboration with the U.S. Army's Aviation Development Directorate, Sikorsky and DARPA. The Army and DARPA are working with Sikorsky to improve and expand ALIAS capabilities developed as a tailorable autonomy kit for installation in both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters.